We have lots of birds in our garden nowadays, having spent the last three or four years assiduously wooing them with fat balls and nut and seed feeders. Last week I was introduced to the dunnock. I knew that it was a small bird, but had never knowingly seen one. But there he was! I looked it up in our Readers Digest Book of Birds and found that his ‘proper’ English name is Hedge Sparrow. But it went on to explain that it is NOT really a sparrow at all – it’s a quite different bird – but that’s the name it was given centuries ago and it has stuck. It is not illegal to call it something else – like, say, ‘dun insect and seed eater’, but nobody would know what you were talking about, although the description might lead them to gather, after some thought, just what you were talking about.
In France it is slightly different. Their Académie Française has turned the use and choice of words into almost a legally defined aspect of their society and many would say that it is tending to achieve the opposite to the intended result, which was the maintenance of their language as a live language. In France a sparrow is un moineau, whereas the hedge sparrow is une fauvette des haies. If we went to France and started talking about les moineaux des haies, they would understand the words but would not be able to identify which bird we were referring to.
It’s all words and semantics – well, not quite – it’s really about what in our stomachs we have been brought up to understand by the words used by our families and communities. At school and so on, we learn to define and refine and extend our vocabularies, but usages across whole communities or nations take decades to change. ‘Gay’ is a good word in point. It can virtually only be used now to refer to ‘homosexual’, whereas in my childhood it had no such connotation at all. And this happened, not as a result of legislation, but of usage.
So what about ‘gay marriage’ then? Does the Church have a position – should the Church have a position? Well I am speaking from the Church but not for the Church if you see what I mean! I have not heard anyone defend the language (that word again!) used by the Scottish Cardinal a couple of weeks ago and absolutely nor can or will I! There seem to me to be three issues here – what do people mean by ‘gay marriage’; what is the proposed legislation doing; how does the Church view it all.
The debate seems, from my TV watching and Radio listening, to start from demands for equality. I have not heard anyone say that recent civil partnership legislation has left gay partners in a worse position in terms of financial and other legal rights worse off than those who are legally married. Most of the calmer protagonists have simply argued that to go one tiny step further and call it a civil marriage is not asking for much and simply links them with all other married couples in one description, rather than suggesting that somehow they are different and thus, perhaps, inferior. But, quite honestly, I do not understand the equality argument. Equality does not mean identity. When women argue for equality with men, I don’t think they are arguing that they are the same. To take that argument for equality to its extreme would require that all men had the legal right to insist on having a womb and that all women had a legal right to have a penis. I doubt that legislative success in such an argument would actually result in equality. So the valid arguments have been for equality of opportunity, equality of reward and so on.
My modern dictionary (and I am using the Shorter OED for this purpose) gives seven meanings of ‘gay’, of which the last is the one now universally accepted as normal! It defines ‘marriage’ as a ‘legally recognised personal union entered into by a man and a woman. .’ It defines a ‘civil marriage’ as one ‘solemnised as a civil contract without a religious ceremony’.
For me ‘marriage’ means a man and a woman. It is not an opinion I hold – it is simply a meaning. I was brought up to call a particular green leafy thing from the garden a ‘cabbage’. If it is, in fact, more properly described as, say, ‘summer greens’, then that may be so. But just as the dunnock is NOT a sparrow, but nonetheless we all call it a hedge sparrow, so, my greens are called a cabbage and a formal union of a man and a woman is called a marriage and a formal union of two women is not. This does not imply any criticism or despite of any sort – it is merely giving words in common usage their common meaning. As with ‘gay’ this could and may well change – but it has not yet. It would seem to me unfortunate for us to follow the French example of using legislation to force meanings and usages upon our language.
That is very much a personal exposition. Where does the Church (and, in particular, the C of E) stand in all this? Well, it stands uncomfortably (as it should). Despite all you may hear to the contrary, the Church has not much of a history in regard to marriage. The Bible duns on about adultery, but has little to say about marriage, although many Christians will make much of the fact that the first reported miracle of Jesus was at a wedding. It is only in recent centuries that the Church has taken over the mantle of marriage organiser. The wedding service (sacrament for the RCs) for all (as opposed to Kings and Queens and magnates) is a historically new thing. The union between a peasant and his wife in mediaeval times was literally a civil marriage, but was not necessarily, indeed was rarely, the subject of a formal ceremony. However, the modern day Church marriage ceremony is now based on what has become a long standing tradition, deeply engrained in our culture. It is only in the last generation that the civil marriage has become the norm and the Church wedding the exception, but it would be foolish to suggest that this has not happened – it has!
But whether or not the Church has a real, deep and unassailable commitment to marriage in Church (which the RCs do, but which I am not sure whether the C of E does or does not!), the whole debate about civil marriage is complicated by the proposed legal admission of same gender partners into the equation. The C of E is where it usually is on contentious matters – it havers – or, to be more generous – it reserves judgement, until wisdom on that issue is achieved. This is actually a very proper course to take, unless there is real commitment to a position, based on genuine and objective understanding of the teachings of Christianity [not necessarily of the Church, which cannot help but be temporal (despite it’s claims to be universal) – see its historical attitudes to slavery, the Crusades, the excesses of the Holy Inquisition, apartheid and so on – all seriously and well meant, but, with more wisdom and understanding, seen to be totally wrong]. In these matters the Church may sometimes lead, but it also often follows society.
We need to rid society of many, many more of the older generation, like me, whose understandings of what things mean are holding up the change to new meanings, before we can comfortably accept that marriage means homosexual unions. While that process is taking place, particular enthusiasms may turn out to be things of the moment and die a natural death. Many urgently taken up causes, resisted by the more conservative among us, turn out to be one-day-wonders and get dumped in the Recycle Bin. Many causes, despite the resistance from the old-timers, turn out to be absolutely right and become the new norm, a new paradigm. And rightly so. For all the maunderings of old Scottish Cardinals, I don’t actually think that the English are comfortably ready yet to see the meaning of the word ‘marriage’ substantially changed, even though most of the nation (or so I believe) now happily accept the rights to equality before the law of gay partnerships with heterosexual marriages and partnerships.